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After the publication last week of a report on past sexual abuse in the German archdiocese of Munich, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI admitted that a previous statement on his participation in a meeting that discussed an abusive priest was “objectively incorrect.”
Though he has yet to go through the full 1,900 page report, Benedict, 95, released a statement through his personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein. In it, he acknowledges that while he was archbishop of the Bavarian capital he took part in a meeting in which the arrival of a priest accused of abusing a minor to Munich from another diocese was discussed.
The statement said Benedict is “carefully” reading the report by German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl, made available to him on Thursday, the same day it was published. In time, he will release a full statement. Until then, Gänswein wrote, what he has read thus far “fill him with shame and pain about the suffering inflicted on the victims.”
“However, he would like to make it clear now that, contrary to what was stated at the hearing, he did attend the Ordinariate meeting on January 15, 1980,” the statement, released to Kath.net, Germany’s Catholic news agency.
The statement to the contrary was therefore “objectively incorrect,” Benedict said through his secretary. Gänswein also said the pope emeritus “would like to emphasize that this was not done out of bad faith, but was the result of an oversight in the editing of his statement.”
How this mistake came about will also be explained in the statement still to be issued.
“He is very sorry for this mistake and asks to be excused,” Gänswein wrote. “Objectively correct, however, remains the statement, documented by the files, that in this meeting no decision was made about a pastoral assignment of the priest in question.”
The argument, made both by the report and Benedict’s secretary, is that during the Ordinariate meeting, only the request to provide the abusive priest with accommodation during his therapeutic treatment in Munich was discussed, and granted.
Commissioned by the archdiocese, the report documents almost 500 cases of clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich stretching over 74 years. These include four abusers who served under the watch of the future Pope Benedict XVI when he headed the archdiocese from 1977 to 1982.
However, at least in one case, the priest was sentenced, then lived in a foreign country before returning to serve as a priest of the Munich archdiocese awhile then Joseph Ratzinger – today Benedict – was still a university professor working outside the archdiocese. When Ratzinger arrived as archbishop in 1978, the priest had already been working in the archdiocese since the early 1970s. However, he was made a pastor by the retired pope in the late 1970s.
German Father Hans Zollner, one of the foremost abuse prevention experts of the Catholic Church, said that Benedict “should make a simple, personal statement. In it, he could say ‘I don’t recall having taken part in the meeting in question. If I was there, then I made a mistake and I apologize. Even if psychologists gave a different assessment of those cases at that time, I should have devoted greater attention to the matter. I’m sorry about that.'”
Zollner has been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its creation and is the president of the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. He said he was surprised at the fact that in his 82-page statement, the retired pope “restricted himself only to the juristic, testimonial and canonical aspects. There is a lack of awareness that this was also about a human side and about external perception.”
As a cardinal and head of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Faith, Benedict is credited with turning around the Vatican’s approach to the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. In 2001, he took the decision to assume the responsibility for processing abuse cases after he realized that bishops around the world weren’t punishing abusers, and instead often moved them from assignment to assignment.
In fact, weeks before being elected pope following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, he offered the Via Crucis meditations on Good Friday, famously referring to the sex abuse crisis when he spoke of “filth” in the Church itself.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma